She’s a two-year-old black female lab. She has a name, but her human companion would prefer that it not be known. That’s because when they are walking together, well-meaning people call out to the dog.
“She gets distracted when she’s supposed to be helping me,” said Secaucus resident Trisha Ebel. “People are uneducated as far as seeing-eye dogs go.”
Ebel is visually impaired.
“When I was in my 20s I was diagnosed with glaucoma,” Ebel explained. “My vision got worse and it was getting difficult to travel by myself. I’d met a few people with Seeing Eye dogs who efficiently and quickly got around with a dog.”
We’ll call the dog Rover for the purposes of this story. Ebel had to retire her first dog, who still lives with her, but as more of a family pet than worker.
“I can accomplish any task with the dog at my side.” – Trisha Ebel
The new dog, Rover, came to her on Feb. 7 after an extensive training session with Ebel at The Seeing Eye, Inc. in Morristown.
Ebel said she lived there for 27 days while she and Rover worked together and got to know each other.
Rover “is a real fireball,” Ebel said. “She’s really eager and confident. She’s a tough dog that can handle anything and gets along with other dogs.”
When the harness is off, she becomes a regular dog, “playing around and running around like mad,” Ebel said.
A match made in Morristown
At the Seeing Eye headquarters in Morristown, dog and companion start to bond. “It’s a beautiful campus,” Ebel said, “with a private room and bathroom, gourmet food, and acres of trails to walk.”
But, she said, “It’s a first-class boot camp, and you do a hell of a lot of work.”
She said that the Seeing Eye organization has its own “breeding station” in Chester, where black and yellow labs, shepherds, golden retrievers, and sometimes large poodles and boxers are raised to be the eyes for humans who are either blind or visually impaired. Shorter haired dogs are used for people who might have allergies.
The puppies stay for eight weeks and then go to the Seeing Eye center for four to six months of continuous training, which includes lots of walking and riding on planes, trains, and buses.
During the program, dog and human work side by side with a trainer and attend lectures.
Any dog wearing a harness is a working dog and should not be approached.
Ebel said that the dog was chosen for her by Seeing Eye, Inc. “Before we’re matched, there is a long interview,” she said. “They find out every aspect about my family life, if there are kids in the environment, about work and traveling, how tall, thin, and strong I am, and how fast I walk.”
A full life
Ebel lives with her husband and two kids in their late teens on the north end of town.
“My family loves the dog, but there are boundaries,” she said. “When we’re working they don’t even want to make eye contact with the dog, but when the harness is off, she’s a goofball.”
Ebel does not let her visual impairment stop her from enjoying activities with her family and friends.
“When my husband and I ride the tandem bike, we leave the dog at home,” she said.
Ebel ice skates and plays soccer and dodge ball with a ball that has bells in it so she can hear where it is.
“I have visually impaired friends and friends who were born blind,” she said, “and there is nothing you can’t do except drive a car or perform surgery.”
When Ebel is playing a sport, she ties Rover up in a place where she can see her and she is trained to sit.
“The public is not usually a problem,” Ebel said. “A lot of people are not educated on the dos and don’ts, and their first instinct is to ask if they can pet the dog. But you can’t do that with a Seeing Eye® dog because they get distracted.”
Any dog wearing a harness is a working dog and should not be approached. Ebel said she often does presentations in schools to educate kids about the proper etiquette when they spot a Seeing Eye dog.
New best friend
Once you leave Seeing Eye, Inc., Ebel said, you own the dog. “But if there are any problems, the support from the staff is unbelievable,” she said. “They’re excellent at what they do. They know so much about dogs and what they’re thinking.”
They even make house calls.
“A trainer can come and help or you can go there,” she said. “No dog is perfect. You have to work on it.”
Ebel, who went to Clarendon grammar school and Secaucus High School, said Secaucus is a good town for someone who is not able to drive.
“You can walk to the store down the road or the post office, and it’s convenient to walk to shops. It’s a law that you are allowed to go into a store or restaurant with a Seeing Eye dog.”
Rover makes it possible for Ebel to do many things.
“I can accomplish any task with the dog at my side,” she said. “The dog was trained to go to New York City with crowds of people and weave in and out without bumping into anybody. She’s amazingly smart.”
Ebel works for DeWitt Associates, a Midland Park company that works with and trains blind and visually impaired people on computers and other technology. She’s an associate computer instructor in sales.
“A driver drives me to and from work,” she said, but with Rover, she “takes trains and buses all over the place.”
Feeling of freedom
Having a dog can give a visually impaired person a new life.
Ebel said with a Seeing Eye dog, you gain independence. “We did a lot of night walks. It was totally dark, but I felt totally free without a worry in the world,” she said. “It was the greatest feeling ever.”
It can take a long time to be matched with the right dog, according to Ebel. And it can sometimes be awkward when you’re first placed with a dog.
“You still have to work with her every day and perfect the match,” she said.
But after a couple of weeks with Rover, “I totally loved her.”
Kate Rounds can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org..